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Wisconsin judge halts state budget law curbing unions' power

By Michael Martinez, CNN
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pushed for legislation curbing the collective bargaining rights of state employees in unions.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pushed for legislation curbing the collective bargaining rights of state employees in unions.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Judge's ruling makes a colorful analogy about a Super Bowl cheesehead "owner"
  • Wisconsin Senate Democrats contend that the bill's passage violated the open meetings law
  • In response, the Dane County district attorney filed a lawsuit
  • The governor is confident the initiative will prevail, spokeswoman says

CNN affiliate WKOW has more on the story.

(CNN) -- A Wisconsin judge issued a temporary restraining order Friday halting the state's controversial budget repair law that curbs the union power of most public employees, the Dane County district attorney's office said.

Gov. Scott Walker, who championed the measure and signed it into law last week, said he was confident the initiative would eventually prevail in the court system, a spokeswoman said.

"This legislation is still working through the legal process. We are confident the provisions of the budget repair bill will become law in the near future," Cullen Werwie, the governor's press secretary, said in a statement.

Wisconsin Senate Democrats said the law, which reduces the collective bargaining rights of most state employees, is an attack on workers and filed a complaint with the Dane County district attorney, claiming that the Senate's Republican-led vote violated Wisconsin's open meetings law.

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The ruling by Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi came in response to a lawsuit filed by District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, charging a violation of the law. Ozanne, a Democrat, was appointed last year by then-Gov. Jim Doyle, also a Democrat.

In the lawsuit, Ozanne alleges that the joint committee of conference, which resolves differences in legislation passed by the Senate and assembly, failed to give a 24-hour public notice of its March 9 meeting despite the objection of state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.

The judge's order enjoins Wisconsin Secretary of State Douglas La Follette from publishing the new law "until further order of the court," according to court documents.

Sumi invoked a colorful analogy in her written decision, saying the legislators' failure to provide timely notice prior to the meeting wasn't a minor detail.

"Those few of you who may have seen the Super Bowl know that there was a much-photographed guy with a cheesehead, and it said 'owner' on it," she wrote. "And of course, we all know what that refers to, the fact that the Green Bay Packers are publicly owned. It's a heartwarming moment to see that, but in fact, it states that we in Wisconsin own our government. We own it. And we own it in three ways.

"We own it by the vote. We own it by the duty to provide open and public access to records, so that the activities of government can be monitored. And we own it in that we are entitled by law to free and open access to government meetings, and especially governmental meetings that lead to the resolution of very highly conflicted and controversial matters," Sumi wrote.

Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, praised the ruling.

"In Wisconsin, we have a democracy, and rules need to be followed. No one is above the law, including Scott Walker," Bloomingdale said. "This is definitely a move in the right direction for working people in Wisconsin to uphold worker rights and also to uphold democracy in Wisconsin and America."

During the controversy over the governor's budget repair bill, Democratic state senators fled the state in protest. They returned Saturday to cheering crowds and vowed to continue the fight.

"People think that this is a picnic for us. They're wrong. But I'll tell you something, we did it for the right reasons," state Sen. Dave Hansen said Saturday. "And the fight will continue. It does not end with that vote."

The senators returned to Wisconsin just one day after Walker signed the bill into law.

Republicans cleared the final hurdle to the controversial proposal last week, passing the bill after the state's GOP-controlled Senate approved an amended version of the measure -- despite the absence of the 14 Democratic senators who fled the state to prevent a necessary quorum of 20 votes.

The amended bill stripped the spending components out of the original proposal, enabling lawmakers to pass the measure with fewer votes.

GOP lawmakers say the law will help Wisconsin close a $137 million budget shortfall with a plan that requires public workers, with the exception of police and firefighters, to cover more of their retirement plan contributions and health care premiums.

Raises will be tied to the rate of inflation, unless state voters approve an exception. The legislation also requires unions to hold a new certification vote every year, and unions will no longer be allowed to collect dues from workers' paychecks.

Unions mobilized their supporters to oppose the bill, drawing tens of thousands of people to rallies opposing Walker and supporting the fugitive Democrats.

CNN's Matt Cherry contributed to this report.

 
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